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The case for movie-length, narrative video games

Has the time come for more movie-length, story-driven games? Three short-format game developers talk with Gamasutra about the secret to selling condensed titles to players used to 40-hour experiences.

Eric Caoili

July 9, 2012

10 Min Read

There's a generation of gamers that many developers and publishers have forgotten -- those players who first picked up their controllers 20 to 30 years ago, who no longer have the time or patience for today's epic, protracted RPGs or even 10-hour blockbusters, but who would still be interested in interactive, story-driven experiences. At least that's the case argued by Ovosonico founder Massimo Guarini, who believes an entire generation of gamers has gone underserved by an industry that's stuck "trying to appeal to a specific demographic, the immortal 15 to 20-years-old demographic." "[The gamers who were playing] Mario 20 years ago or Donkey Kong 30 years ago, they don't have the same amount of time anymore," he tells Gamasutra. "They have kids. They have jobs. They come home in the evening, they're tired, and they have to manage their lives in a totally different way than a 15 to 20-year-old kid. "When you are in that situation, and when you sit down on the couch after dinner with your family, if you're given the choice between a movie and you know that's going to be over in two hours and that's it, or a game and you never know when the game is going to be finished and how much effort is going to be required from you, it's obvious. We're basically lazy, right, so you're going to choose the movie." Social and mobile game developers offer an alternative with games that can be played for just minutes at a time, but Guarini says there are few options for those who want something in between those disparate experiences, who want a satisfying story-driven game they can consume in an afternoon. That's why, after leaving Grasshopper Manufacture where he directed cult shooter Shadows of the Damned, he wants to now create a movie-length game at his new studio in Milan. His hope is to make something for that forgotten generation, for players with little free time and a preference for games about more than "trivial subjects like space marines." This void of short narrative-focused titles is one we've seen filled by more and more independent developers lately, like Thatgamecompany's powerful Journey and Plastic's psychedelic PSN experiment Datura, but are gamers really clamoring for these condensed releases?

Portion control with digestible games

Though more short-format titles have released recently, there's still a stigma among many consumers that games need to hit a quota of hours to earn their money. And when a release fails to reach that arbitrary length requirement for an RPG or a narrative-based game, it's not common to see consumers and even the enthusiast press bemoan that perceived weakness. "It still amazes me that some gamers are happy to explicitly say they don't care about the quality of a game, it's only the dollar-per-hour cost that defines value for them," says Dan Pinchbeck, who was the creative director on Thechineseroom's critically acclaimed two-hour-long PC title Dear Esther. "I find that completely extraordinary. It's like going for a meal and basing whether it's any good on how much food you get served rather than whether it tastes nice. I don't see shoveling crap into myself as good value on the basis that there's a lot of it." Trailer for Dear Esther Pinchbeck isn't alone in the quantity versus quality debate when it comes to game length -- Gary Whitta, movie screenwriter (The Book of Eli) and story consultant on Telltale's excellent episodic game The Walking Dead, complains that most of the content in mega-sized games is filler. He also champions the idea of creating short "digestible" experiences that won't scare away gamers with limited leisure time. "If you put a kind of massive, massive man versus food plate in front of me, that to me like is Skyrim," says Whitta, continuing the food analogy. "I'm like, 'Oh my god. How am I going to get all the way through this?' What I'm looking for is just a nice plate of food. Just the right portion." "That's a nice way to look at it, kind of portion control in gaming -- just finding that right amount of food on your plate where you feel like you've had just enough, where you feel full, you feel satisfied. You don't have that experience where you're like, 'Oh my god. Just because I needed to clear that plate, I ended up feeling kind of sick with how much I ate.'"

Changing expectations and price points

While it's unclear yet if a class of gamers waiting for short format titles actually exists, the growing popularity and acceptance by consumers of digital distribution across consoles, PCs, and smartphones could help developers overcome this stigma short games have suffered over the years. Because downloadable titles tend to be smaller games -- due to tighter budgets, a platform's file size limitation for downloads versus discs, or various other factors -- many users have different expectations for those releases, and can be more receptive to compact experiences. Ovosonico's Massimo GuariniGuarini thinks the pricing for games on these download platforms is also going a long way in acclimating users to shorter but cheaper games. He comments, "You can actually lower the price since you don't have the cost of goods, which is basically what brings the price up when you go retail. If you sell a two-hour game for $60, it's not going to work obviously." "You need to be competitive with similar forms of entertainment," the Ovosonico head adds. "Like movies on Blu-ray, it's like, what, $15, $20? So, that's about the price range that it's worth, I think, for a two-hour game format." (That's a bit more expensive than Dear Esther, which sells for $10, or the $5 episodes of Walking Dead, though it's in line with Journey's pricing.) Asking consumers to pay that much for a short game, though, can put more pressure on developers to deliver a game that's engaging all the way through. "I think maybe for some people it feels like more of a risk to pay less for a shorter game," notes Pinchbeck. "If you pay $60 for a 40-hour game, it's likely that at least some of those 40 hours will be good. If you are paying $10 for three hours, all three hours have got to be brilliant." At the same time, there's a danger in discounting games too much just because they're shorter, devaluing them to the point where consumers believe that their time in a game is only worth $1 an hour -- you might end up with games that only put in $1 per hour's worth of effort. "Games like Dear Esther require a heavy investment in assets to get the production quality up," says Pinchbeck. "If we were limited to an App Store price-point for the game, there's no way we'd have invested in next-gen visuals. It's the normal contract - we want you to invest in our innovation, and we have to supply an experience that supports that investment. If you only want to invest peanuts, you can't complain if developers design to that budget."

Big publishers lacking confidence

If there's a potential audience for short story-driven games, and if there's a system in place that makes it possible for those kind of titles to reach consumers, why aren't more major publishers trying out this format? Where are the movie-style game releases from companies like Electronic Arts and Activision that offer an interactive alternative to blockbuster summer films? Guarini believes many game makers are just too scared to try anything new, to make games that are more condensed than the titles they typically create, and offer a cinematic experience with a narrative that's more than just shooting bad guys within that framework. "We actually don't have much confidence in what we do," he says. "Especially publishers, they don't have much confidence in being able to come up with different subjects in video games. We're a relatively young industry at this point. We're nothing like movies at this point in terms of business and in terms of like, I would say, level of maturity in that sense. "So, there's a sense of resignation that we're all constrained with [thinking] basically, 'Okay, that's what has worked up to this point. That's what we're going to do because that's what sells." Pinchbeck points out that it's also expensive for bigger companies to develop new and unproven IPs, and there's the prohibitive cost of tools to consider, too. "If you are going to invest a lot in that, you need to justify that development with a price-point, and to achieve that, you need to increase the scale of the game to justify that price-point."

Short-format games are all about pacing

For those developers that decide to create story-driven, movie-length games, there are a number of changes with this different approach they must take into consideration, the obvious being that the production cycle and development time will be much shorter compared to working on traditional projects. There's also a greater emphasis on pacing and density when designing these titles -- players must feel like every minute they spend with these games offers something fun or interesting or engaging for them to experience. Again, there's little room for filler when players are spending more per hour on a short-format game than they would on a $60 40-hour title. Screenwriter Whitta says that the film industry learned a long time ago to not worry about length and just focus on the pacing of the experience. Though people seem to have opposite expectations with the two mediums, where they tend to be put off by three-hour films but look for games that can take them weeks to finish, pacing and density make all the difference when it comes to whether they enjoy movies regardless of their length. Telltale's The Walking Dead Game makers that manage to master pacing in a film-style title, keeping players absorbed all the way to the end, can also enjoy a reward most directors behind today's triple-A releases don't get: the satisfaction of knowing their audience is more likely to experience their entire production as it was intended (without interruptions) and appreciate what they tried to accomplish with their story.

Freedom to experiment

With their smaller budgets and shortened production cycles, narrative-focused, movie-length games can offer developers more opportunities to experiment with their titles. It's not only a chance to introduce an original IP, they can try new ways of telling interactive stories, and find excuses to produce content completely different from the usual stuff they've likely grown used to making for many, many years. For Guarini, who's waiting until later this year to reveal what Ovosonico's first cinematic game will be, short-format games also allows his studio to try out an unconventional way of structuring his team -- along with making film-style games, he's trying out the movie studio approach of having a small creative team, and hiring around that group for specific projects instead of keeping a complete crew around permanently. "I think the secret will be having this creative core that is basically the director, the producer, [etcetera] in-house," he explains. "That's particularly for these kind of short games that are a little bit more targeted to specific audiences. That means that you can be a little more personal in what you say in the game, a little more niche if you want of course." Guarini says it's still too early to tell how this experiment will play out, but like story-driven, short-format games, it's a model he predicts we'll see a lot more of in the future from indie teams.

About the Author(s)

Eric Caoili


Eric Caoili currently serves as a news editor for Gamasutra, and has helmed numerous other UBM Techweb Game Network sites all now long-dead, including GameSetWatch. He is also co-editor for beloved handheld gaming blog Tiny Cartridge, and has contributed to Joystiq, Winamp, GamePro, and 4 Color Rebellion.

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